How to gain PR work experience

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Photo by GRAHAM MANSFIELD on Unsplash
Photo by GRAHAM MANSFIELD on Unsplash

There are parallels to be drawn between the world of work and the world of dating. It shouldn’t be surprising since relationships are key to both.

This advice is written for public relations students and for graduates of any discipline looking to get their foot in the door of this interesting, challenging and growing industry.

Work experience – just like jobs – should be beneficial to both parties, the employer and the applicant. (See below for a discussion of what we mean by work shadowing, placements and internships). Getting PR work experience is no different.

The applicant should first apply some thought to what they can offer an employer. The best way to demonstrate this is through social media. Let’s take this step by step.

Step one: Your professional social media profile

The social media you enjoy using – whether it’s Snapchat or YouTube, Instagram or TikTok – can offer value to employers (you will have gained some transferable skills). But the most promising places to gain work experience are through professional social networks – LinkedIn and Twitter.

So presenting a professional profile on LinkedIn and Twitter is the equivalent to working on your profile on a dating app. You need to choose the photograph carefully; you need to present your skills and interests to the world, and you need to let people know you’re there through your connections and your content.

This may sound like hard work just to gain some entry-level work experience, but in effect you’ll be working on a public relations campaign for brand you and showcasing the very skills needed to work for brand X or organisation Y.

Twitter is an open social network: you can follow anyone without seeking their permission or needing to know them. So you can show your interests and curiosity by following people in the sort of organisations you’d like to work with, or journalists and influencers operating in specific areas.

While you can quickly follow a thousand influencers, this won’t gain you an equivalent number of followers. But you need to be aware that many of those you follow will be curious enough to check out your profile. So make sure you have a photograph and a brief description of who you are. Also make sure that you have some content to inspect, even if it’s only a few retweets from accounts you follow.

LinkedIn is rather more closed. Busy professionals rarely welcome connection requests from people they don’t know. (To use a dating analogy, it’s the equivalent of approaching a stranger in the street and asking for their number. It’s almost certain to lead to a ‘no’.) So you need to build your LinkedIn connections more carefully. Start with people you already know: perhaps your lecturers, guest lecturers and other people you’ve met in real life. To extend this to employers you’re hoping to connect to and hear from, be sure to personalise your connection request. ‘You’ve been recommended to me by [mutual contact]. I’m a student/graduate keen to work in public relations, and I’d love to learn more about your work. Can we connect?’ Or ‘I’m a student member of the CIPR/PRCA and I’m impressed by your work and standing in the profession. Can we connect?

Here’s why this can work.

You may think the cards are stacked against you: one of many students or graduates seeking a finite number of opportunities, but employers see it differently. Many of them are facing a skills shortage: they simply cannot hire enough good people to support their ambitions, so may be keen to be alerted to future talent.

Besides that, those in professional associations such as the CIPR and PRCA have signed up to a commitment to promote the profession more widely. So even talking to a student is part of their mission to further the standing of public relations.

Then there’s the question of diversity. Public relations is two thirds female and overwhelmingly white and it recruits disproportionately from those from privileged backgrounds (such as those who were privately educated).

This doesn’t mean that if you’re a white, middle class female you’ll be excluded from opportunities. But it means that you’re already included and well represented. So a candidate who looks and sounds rather different may be given an opportunity if they show equivalent skills and attributes.

Step two: content and conversations

Dating works by matching partners with each other. Finding work is similar: an employer is looking for an employee to match their values and ambitions. An applicant similarly wants to work for an employer that’s a good match for them.

The easy part of this equation is for you to decide where you’d like to work (whether in a sector such as sport or fashion, whether in an agency or in-house, or in a specialism such as media relations, digital PR, internal communication or public affairs).

The harder part is to work on becoming attractive to employers in your chosen sector. But it’s really not that hard: if you want to work in fashion PR, then take a leaf from some of your favourite influencers and start creating fashion-related content. An employer will be looking for signs of commitment and proficiency, and a fashion PR blog or vlog is one way to demonstrate this. And be sure to make it visually appealing!

If you’re looking for a way into public affairs, then show you’re on top of the news agenda and look for ways to supplement this with interviews with campaigners, politicians, political reporters and public affairs practitioners (any of whom may be in a position to offer work experience or introduce you to further contacts).

As well as creating your own content, you should be looking to comment on relevant content from others. You know from your own personal social media that a like, a comment or a share is a strong affirmation, and you can make friends by following through on this. Just be sure to make it sincere: if you simply automatically share content from another account without adding any value or comment of your own then you could be a bot.

Step three: finding and negotiating opportunities

Recruitment has changed. Vacancies are rarely advertised, but are more typically shared on social media. And that’s why you need to be following your target employers to be in with a chance of hearing about opportunities.

And some employers (typically the smaller, younger agencies) do not even announce vacancies since they’re always open to applications. (High staff turnover may be a red flag, just like the person who’s always dating but who never settles down with a partner – but fast growth businesses may be hiring to support new business rather than hiring to replace people who’ve left).

Opportunities are out there for those who build their networks; and those who build their networks and create relevant content and join in the conversation will already be known to these employers. That may be all it takes to get you through the door.

Then you need to be clear on what you’re looking for.

The least commitment on both sides comes with a ‘work shadowing’ arrangement. This can count as work experience, but in reality you’re watching others doing the work rather than contributing youself. Work shadowing is a casual agreement without commitment on either side (view it as a first date). Expect to pay your own travel expenses and to be there in a voluntary capacity.

But for every other type of work experience in public relations, you can expect to be paid for your contribution. Professional bodies are firm on this question: because if all placements and internships are unpaid – including graduate roles lasting weeks of months – given that so many public relations jobs are in London, this in effect excludes those who can’t afford to work, stay and travel at their own expense. In other words, it further entrenches public relations work among more privileged members of society.

Applicants may find this challenging. The matter of payment raises questions of obligation, and opens you to scrutiny from employers about your skills and experience. It turns your placement into a second date: both parties are working out whether to take this further, so the stakes are raised. It also opens that concern shared by so many young people: to find work, you need experience. Yet how do you gain experience other than by finding work?

I hope that the tips given earlier on working on ‘brand you’ and developing your professional content and contacts can help resolve this paradox. You already have relevant experience if you’ve created content and built a network on social media. There may also be things you have done such as fundraising for a good cause that count towards public relations experience, even if you didn’t know it at the time.

Step four: Demonstrating your commitment to public relations

Like dating, you may not find the perfect match first time. But you’ll learn about yourself and you may surprise yourself. I’ve known of students who said they were seeking roles in consumer public relations but who found their niche in a business-to-business role, in internal communication or in a public sector organisation. They made their choice from a position of knowledge rather than from an idealised impression of what the work would involve.

While pursuing opportunities, there’s more you could be doing to build your profile and presence.

You could join a professional body: CIPR and PRCA are just two of those available to you. IABC and IoIC are two others. These all provide resources, qualifications and a network of practitioners along with networking and training opportunities.

You could gain a professional qualification. Even PR graduates can benefit from a professional qualification, though they’d be well advised to wait a few years. But school leavers and non-PR graduates might consider qualifications such as the CIPR Foundation Award and the CIPR Professional PR Certificate.

PR Academy even offers a free online public relations course suitable for beginners.

You’ll also find plenty of free resources on this site and current students are encouraged to participate in the #prstudent #CreatorAwards22. Any UK-based public relations student, or indeed any student with an interest in public relations simply needs to tag their social media content with #prstudent to stand a chance of making our regular Friday selection. Those picked appear below the content produced by other prominent practitioners. It’s a great way to impress people in the industry, which can only help you to build your own professional network and explore openings.